Dreams and History: The Interpretation of Dreams from Ancient Greece to Modern Psychoanalysis

By Daniel Pick; Lyndal Roper | Go to book overview

Chapter 6

Samuel Taylor Coleridge and 'The pains of sleep'

Jennifer Ford

… the night's dismay

Saddened and stunned the coming day.

Sleep, the wide blessing, seemed to me

Distemper's worst calamity.

The third night, when my own loud scream

Had waked me from the fiendish dream,

O'ercome with sufferings strange and wild,

I wept as I had been a child.

Coleridge, 'The Pains of Sleep'

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) frequently wrote on the subject of dreams and dreaming. His three greatest poems, The Rime of Ancient Mariner, 'Kubla Khan', and 'Christabel', all have dreams as a thematic concern. He was a vivid and prolific dreamer who carefully recorded, analysed and discussed the distinct features, possible causes and meanings of his dreams. He turned to a wide range of British, German and French writers, discussing the subject with friends who were poets, scientists, doctors and philosophers; he read both contemporary and ancient dream writers; and he gave a lecture (in March 1818) on the related topics of dreams, witchcraft and mesmerism. He also planned to write an 'entire work' on the subject but never arranged his copious fragmentary writings into one volume. Some of his major thoughts on dreams are expressed in his poetry, notably in the small volume entitled Christabel, published in 1816, which included the dream-vision poem, 'Kubla Khan', the unfinished 'Christabel' and the short poem on nightmares, 'The Pains of Sleep'. All three poems reveal key ideas on Coleridge's thinking on dreams and dreaming. However, it was in 'The Pains of Sleep' that he most poignantly articulated how a 'fiendish crowd/Of shapes and thoughts' so tortured him in his dreams that he feared to fall asleep each night. 1 This poem, written in 1803 but not published until 1816, expresses Coleridge's views on the origin of dreams:

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